University High's baseball team is off to a really fast start, but the Watauga Valley Conference figures to be an interesting race to the finish.
The Junior Bucs won their first five games of the season, and have a senior-dominated team. They will certainly be a factor in the title chase.
However, North Greene is coming off a state tournament appearance and returns its ace pitcher.
Unaka has tradition, Hampton has more experience than usual, and Cloudland should be competitive when Roan Mountain thaws.
Here's a look at each team:
Head coach Josh Petty said he doesn't have to rely on just one pitcher for a big game because of depth on the mound.
The four-seniors staff is led by Connor Bartow and Justin Wiseman while Marshall Hurley and Zak Vicars are also in the mix.
“I feel real comfortable running any of them out there in most situations,” said Petty. “And Connor and Justin have been a good one-two punch.”
At the plate, the Junior Bucs have a lineup that fits neatly into slots.
“We have a prototypical top five in our lineup,” said Petty.
Leading off is Bartow, who plays shortstop when he's not pitching. He gets on base, and knows how to run the bases, said Petty.
Bartow is followed by catcher Andy Hardin while Vicars (3b) hits in the No. 3 spot. Wiseman (1b) is the cleanup hitter while Hurley (cf) bats fifth.
Rounding out the lineup are Nick Sewell (2b, ss, So.), Logan Metcalf (of, So.), Ben Jackson (u, Jr.) and Jackson Colvett (of, Sr.).
Overall, Petty said he likes what he sees from his team.
“We are very senior-laden with a lot of experience,” he said. “The kids are enthusiastic, and they've set the bar pretty high for themselves.”
Injuries have slowed the Rangers at the start, and they lost four of their first five games. However, expectations haven't taken a hit.
“I've got very high expectations,” said head coach Tee Blevins. “We had arm injuries at the start of the season, but when people get healthy in a couple of weeks we should be at full strength.”
Blevins said he will count on three players to get the bulk of the work on the mound. Junior Thomas Hardin, sophomore Jonathan Wright and senior Danny Bales should give the Rangers a chance to compete.
At the plate, Blevins said senior Jacob Hill is doing a good job in the early going. Bales (2b, ss, Sr.) and Weston Colbaugh (1b, Sr.) have also been consistently in the hitting mix.
Center fielder Billy Bales and left fielder Jeffrey Yerks have also made some important contributions.
Overall, Blevins said his team just needs to get some games under its belt.
“We just need experience,” he said. “We're trying to get that with the young guys, and I think we will be OK.”
Experience and pitching haven't always been in big supply for the Bulldogs, but head coach Matthew Hardin said he has both this season — and things are looking brighter.
Now the players just have to believe, said Hardin.
“It doesn't matter what I think, it matters what the kids think,” he said. “When they believe they can win, they can compete with anybody on our schedule.”
Hardin, whose team is off to a 3-3 start, will give the ball often to juniors T.J. Hicks and Jeffery Hughis, and sophomore Stone Hutchinson. But he said he can also use seniors Chris Ellis, Kody Lauderback, Mark Ailport and Jacob Smith.
At the plate, Lauderback has been hitting the ball consistently in the early season and leads the team in batting average. Hicks (rf) has also been connecting.
“He's has been murdering the ball,” said Hardin.
Other key hitters include Ailport (cf), Ellis (lf), David Finney (1b) and Hutchinson (3b).
Getting off to an 0-5 start and coming off a winless season, the Highlanders haven't lost their enthusiasm, said head coach Kevin Kendall.
“I knew we would struggle in March,” said Kendall. “But as the weather warms, I look for us to be competitive. Toward tournament time, I think we can compete with anybody in the league.”
One reason for Kendall's assessment is freshman shortstop Austin Whitehead.
“He has the potential to be one of the best players we've had,” said Kendall. “He's athletic, tough, strong, plays hard and swings hard. He may struggle a little coming from middle school ball to high school, but he has potential.”
One problem for the Highlanders has been an injury to ace pitcher Brent Hyden. However, the senior is expected back within about a week.
Hyden is complemented on the mound by juniors Curtis Hitechew and Mason Carnett.
At the plate, Kendall said he will rely on Devin Whitehead (3b, Sr.), Logan Russell (lf, So.) and freshman right fielder T.J. Davis.
“We have the athletes,” said Kendall. “This is probably the most athletic team I've had.”
The Huskies made it to the state tournament last season, becoming the first Greene County baseball team to ever reach the event.
And they were competitive in a 5-2 loss to eventual champion Class A state champion Decatur County.
With Tyler Bailey returning on the mound, and six players back from last year's team, the Huskies should be major players in the conference title chase.